Artistic Director Richard Tognetti chose an old friend in Russian pianist Polina Leschenko to join him for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s closing tour of the year.
They first performed together in 2006, and it was the work they played then – Felix Mendelssohn’s youthful Concerto for Violin and Piano in D minor – that opened this latest concert.
Written when he was only 14, it is not one of his masterpieces. There are some good solo passages but integrating the two instruments in the faster movements poses problems. However, it is fascinating to see how the young composer was developing and who he was studying. The opening movement shows Mendelssohn’s passion for the counterpoint of JS Bach, while the delicate Adagio owes much to Mozart and Haydn.
Both soloists were thoroughly at home with the music and with each other – they recorded this work for the BIS label and Leschenko is a regular guest of the ACO – and there was a feeling of excitement in the final movement with its lightning fast, catch-me-if-you-can arpeggio runs where both soloists try to outdo each other, accompanied by a 15-strong group of strings.
Leschenko has wonderful touch and her intonation is faultless, while Tognetti, leaning forward in a half-crouch like a fencer, dispatches flurries of notes with seeming ease.
Championed by Martha Argerich, the 42-year-old pianist has garnered a reputation for her poetic interpretations and is considered a Chopin specialist, worthy of being ranked alongside US great Garrick Ohlsson, and this was the highlight of the second half when she performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor. Like the Mendelssohn, this was also a youthful work; the composer was just 19 and about to leave his beloved Poland for Paris.
This performance, an arrangement for string orchestra by Israeli pianist Ilan Rogoff, was exceptional. Leschenko’s technical command – a smooth and light touch, nuanced phrasing and superb use of pedals – took one’s breath away. But you expect that from an international pianist. What she brings to the table also is a fine sense of poetry. As her regular chamber music partner, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, says: “I think Polina Leschenko is not a piano player; when she plays I forget about the piano, I forget about the instruments, it’s just music.”
This was no more true than in the slow movement, which Chopin dedicated as a love song to the soprano Konstancja Gladkowska.
After the spell cast by this performance, with Leschenko’s expressive pianism more transparent with the scaled down orchestral arrangement, the programme was neatly wrapped up with an exhilarating string orchestra arrangement of a work by that other Mendelssohn, Fanny.
She wrote her String Quartet in E-flat major when she was 29 and married to William Hensel. Raw and passionate, with one movement inspired by a rondo by Paganini, it would not have been heard in public as her works were only performed in family salons, and many of them were published under Felix’s name to reach a wider audience.
However he did not approve of his older sister’s quartet, considering it “undisciplined”.
To modern ears it is an exciting and engaging work, especially in its string orchestra arrangement, and hopefully we will be hearing it more often.